Bilal: A New Breed of Hero


A future warrior at play as a child.

(2015) Animated Feature (Vertical) Starring the voices of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Michael Gross, Cynthia K. McWilliams, Jacob Latimore, Fred Tatasciore, Jon Curry, Mick Wingert, Dave B. Mitchell, Al Rodrigo, Andre Robinson, Sage Ryan, Quinton Flynn, Mark Rolston, John Eric Bentley, Keythe Farley, Sherrie Jackson. Directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal

 

Dubai’s first foray into animated feature films is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it boasts some truly glorious animation. On the other hand, the human characters are almost without expression throughout. It also focuses on a character from the very early days of the Islamic faith, of a figure who was part of the Prophet’s inner circle, although that is only tangentially referred to in the film and of course Muhammad isn’t depicted at all in keeping with their faith.

The movie is (very) loosely based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a 7th century African man who in childhood was taken as a slave and became one of the first followers of the prophet Muhammad. He is in Islamic culture credited with being the first muezzin who calls the faithful to prayer reputedly because of his beautiful voice.

In the film, we see Bilal (Robinson) and his sister Shufaira (Robinson) watch horrified from a closet as their mother is murdered. The two children are taken as slaves and sold to the cruel idol-seller Umayya (McShane) whose son Safwan (Ryan) may be just a little bit crueler than his dad, although more cowardly.

Bilal grows into a man (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who is prized for his singing voice by his master. Run-ins with Safwan to protect his sister has left Bilal discouraged and essentially accepting his fate as a slave, flying in the face of the wisdom his mother taught him as a child. However, there are others in Mecca who disagree with the idol-worshiping money-grubbing slave-oriented economy and atmosphere of the city. Hamza (Mitchell), a noted warrior and the Master of the Market (Gross) both see greatness in Bilal and gradually win him over to monotheism and freedom. However, despite Bilal leaning towards pacifism, they will have to fight for that freedom – in a place called Badr.

This is a very different kettle of fish for animated features. For one thing, it is a story of a Muslim hero and portrays the religion in a very different light than it is generally portrayed in the West. Few will remember this from their history but at one time the Muslims accepted Jewish refugees driven out of Europe and under Arabic rule they thrived and often worked in the great centers of learning established in the Arabic world.

Sadly, a lot of American viewers won’t be able to look past the rhetoric and will see this as Muslim propaganda and while it certainly leans towards a positive vision of Islam, it is no more propaganda than Christian faith-based stories and animations. Americans are sadly notorious for turning away from the unfamiliar.

As mentioned earlier, the animation is a bit uneven but when it’s good, it’s really good. Strangely though, there is an awful lot of violence and cruelty depicted in the film, much more so than in the average children’s animated film which might give some parents pause. However, those parents who wish to teach tolerance as a lesson should certainly high-tail it to their local VOD site of choice or their local DVD/Blu-Ray dealer because that lesson is certainly honed in on. Sure, the dialogue is a bit clunky (the characters rarely use contractions and end up all sounding like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and full of aphorisms which may drive the average adult batty but it is meant sincerely. I also question the title a little bit; how is a 7th century figure a “new” breed of hero?

The movie got a brief theatrical release in February, more than three years after it had been released elsewhere globally. Likewise, it is only now showing up on home video. This is a pretty solid animated feature which although flawed shows some potential for the studio that the directors established in order to make this film. Although perhaps Americans may continue to resist features that give the colorful and often brilliant history of the Islamic faith, I hope the studio continues to produce them. Learning more about the culture of Islam is the first step in learning not to fear it but rather coexist with it.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is occasionally breathtaking. The story is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: This is much too long for younger kids. The English dialogue is a bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some surprisingly intense violence, child peril, some disturbing images as well as thematic issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the depiction of the Battle of Badr, animators brought to life 5,000 human characters and 1,000 horses – more than took place at the actual battle which involved 1,300 warriors and 270 horses.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up and Away
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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New Releases for the Week of April 28, 2017


THE CIRCLE

(STX) Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, John Boyega, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Karen Gillan, Nate Corddry, Mamoudou Athie, Patton Oswalt. Directed by James Ponsoldt

A young woman goes to work for the world’s largest hi-tech social media company. As she rises through the ranks she is mentored by no less than the charismatic founder of the company, but as she takes part in testing a new iteration of the software, she discovers that the program does far more than what it was advertised to do and that her decisions are affecting her friends, family and ultimately the human race as she realizes that the personal freedom of every human being may be at risk.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use)

How to Be a Latin Lover

(Pantelion/Lionsgate) Eugenio Derbez, Salma Hayek, Rob Lowe, Kristen Bell. Maximo wants to be rich; he just doesn’t want to work for it. He figures out that the easiest way to accomplish those things is to marry a rich woman and so he does. After 25 years of an idyllic existence of wealth and privilege his wife unexpectedly dumps him for a younger man. Moving in with his estranged sister, he bonds with his young nephew who has a crush on his schoolmate; Maximo encourages this because it gives him an “in” with the girl’s grandmother, a widowed billionaire. However, Maximo begins to learn slowly that there are things more important than money.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for crude humor, sexual references and gestures, and for brief nudity)

Sleight

(BH Tilt/WWE) Jacob Latimore, Seychelle Gabriel, Dulé Hill, Storm Reid. A savvy street magician is all his little sister has after their parents pass away. Trying to keep a roof over their head and food on their table, he resorts to some illegal activities. He gets pulled in deeper and deeper into a dangerous lifestyle until his beloved baby sister is kidnapped. To get her back, he must use his intelligence, his magic and his street smarts.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language throughout, drug content and some violence)